New law cracking down on on DUIs; Interlock ignition devices now part of all convictions

Published 12:13 am Saturday, October 4, 2014

NATCHEZ — It’s going to be tougher for anyone convicted of DUI in Mississippi to get behind the wheel and crank up again.

A new law went into effect in Mississippi Wednesday requiring anyone convicted of a DUI — including a first offense — to have an interlock ignition device installed in their vehicle if they want driving privileges in the months following their convictions.

The device requires the driver to blow into a machine that detects alcohol before allowing them to crank their car.

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The new law requires a 90-day installation of the device for a first offense and at least a year for subsequent convictions.

Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess said the new law has some upsides for first-time offenders.

For example, it allows them to non-adjudicate themselves, essentially entering a guilty plea that the court withholds accepting as long as the defendants meet certain conditions that include the interlock device.

“It helps with their record, but there are going to be extra costs associated with it,” Vess said.

“That can be good for them, because under the new law, a first offense never goes away. Under the old system, it went off your record after five years, but now there is no time limit. If you get a DUI first and then seven years later you get another one, you will get a DUI second charge.”

But the additional costs associated with the new law is why Vess said the new law, while well intentioned, could be thought of as a “mixed-bag.” It may accidentally penalize some defendants more than others, he said.

“If you are indigent and you are ordered to install this device, the state has a dedicated fund set aside to put it in,” Vess said. “But the working poor who might not be considered indigent are not going to be eligible to get it if they aren’t able to pay the monthly fee.”

Circuit Judge Al Johnson — whose court sometimes hears first-time offenders seeking a hardship license that would allow them to travel to and from work in the post-conviction period — said he is trying to sort through how the law will affect his court.

“There are a lot of people over the past few years that have obtained hardship driving licenses, and regardless of how you feel about DUI laws, people have jobs and have to maintain and support their families,” he said.

Vess said in his court he will clearly present both options to all defendants — the suspension or the interlock device — during their cases.

“I will let them make the informed decision,” he said.

Only one business in the area — Solar Bay — is authorized to install the new interlock devices.

John McBride with Solar Bay said the company does not sell the devices, but instead defendants will have to contact the interlock company and the device will be sent to Solar Bay.

“The unit will be calibrated there (at the company) based on what the judge says,” McBride said. “All we are going to do is install it like a stereo.”

Those with a court order to install the machine will have to take it to Solar Bay once a month so it can be checked to ensure its calibration is still correct, McBride said.

“You don’t have to have a court order to get one of these things,” he said. “If a parent buys their 16-year-old a new Mustang and wants to make sure he isn’t getting behind the wheel and driving, you can have this installed and say, ‘I want to make sure you are not drinking and driving, because I love you.’”

McBride said he will meet with judges next week to discuss the machines and the new law in more detail.